Architecture design-builds benefit students, communities

Architecture design-builds benefit students, communities
Projects in South Sioux City, Ogallala to open this spring

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Courtesy photo
Nebraska students work on the Baxa cabin at the Cedar Point Biological Station near Ogallala.

College of Architecture students are giving back to Nebraska communities by designing and building two new facilities slated for spring completion.

South Sioux City and Ogallala will have their landscapes altered with new structures designed to expand their community amenities and enhance the quality of life of their citizens. Working collaboratively with local, state and private sectors, architecture students are putting the finishing touches this semester on the South Sioux City community orchard multipurpose facility and the Baxa cabin at the Cedar Point Biological Station near Ogallala.

The structures are part of the college’s design-build project. Led by Jason Griffiths, assistant professor of architecture, the projects allow Nebraska students to get hands-on experience planning and building structures that benefit communities.

Projects and partners are carefully selected by the college. Typically, the design research studio instructor collaborates with a nonprofit partner that is unlikely to be able to afford the expertise of a professional firm to construct a culturally significant, community-based and socially responsible building.

“It is important we partner with Nebraska organizations so the community sees and benefits from the outcomes," Griffiths said. "It allows us to play a direct part in the state and in the communities we live in. It’s a mutually beneficial partnership.”

The two most recent Nebraska projects were developed and built over two academic years and several design studio courses. Griffiths and the students started working on the projects in fall 2016, creating concepts and consulting with community partners.

In spring 2017, the teams refined the designs and developed construction drawings before finalizing budgets, suppliers and site preparation. Construction of both projects started in summer 2017.

To accelerate the builds, students use cross-laminated timber, an engineered wood paneling system that Griffith is an expert in. Using alternated layers of kiln-dried lumber, the timbers are engineered to be very strong and lightweight. They are ordered to exact builder specifications, delivered precut and ready to assemble, which saves the teams time and labor.

In fall 2017, the students worked on furniture components, windows, doors, shutters and the remainder of the cladding. For the spring 2018 semester, independent students are finishing project details such as windows, stairs and external areas such as shutters and pavers.

The design-builds are on schedule for openings in late spring.

Architecture students examine plans as part of the Baxa cabin project.

“Working with these students is great," said Gene Maffit, South Sioux City parks director and project collaborator. "Seeing them work through all the different concepts and learning how to work together to get the best design is always a great process.”

Adam Smith, forest products program leader with the Nebraska Forest Service, also heralded the collaboration with faculty and students.

“They are very innovative and engaged,” Smith said. “If we had the opportunity to continue efforts with architecture, we would jump at it. In fact, Jason and I received a grant to continue cross-laminated timber work until 2020, so we are already planning future activities, and we hope to keep this partnership strong even after the grant is complete.”

Design-builds can have a transformative impact on a student’s education, reinforcing and solidifying knowledge gained in the classroom. This exercise is not about training builders but educating architects and designers about the building process and how to get something built. Students learn important communication skills like how to talk with builders and understand their terminology so both builder and designer are on the same page.

“As an architecture student, I have had a lot of experience with creativity, theory and application in the realm of computer modeling and scale models,” Aubrey Wassung said. “Design-build with Jason has taken my theoretical designs into a reality where those skills meet real-world applications. As a student working on the South Sioux City orchard facility from start to finish, I have developed skills such as a better understanding of design vs. construction, learning hands-on techniques of building and the collaboration process between structural engineering, fabricators, suppliers, client relations, budgeting and even international customs.”

Architecture student Hasan Shurrab echoed those sentiments and expressed his appreciation for a greater understanding of the build process.

“I think being on site and having hands-on experience with the tools and the details broadens our vision as an architectural student," he said. "I was more aware of the construction process and the logistics needed to finish the building.”

The origins of these design-build projects demonstrate powerful, community partnerships already in place. Griffiths’ existing community relationships made it easier for the pieces of the puzzle to fit together. For example, the Nebraska Forest Service and Griffiths had an existing working relationship from their collaboration on the Great Plains CLT Market Development through Architectural Education grant, so the South Sioux City facility project was a natural evolution to the partnership.

Therefore, when Nebraska Forest Service staff and South Sioux City administrators were presented with a concern, they approached Griffiths regarding a possible student opportunity. They proposed a project involving the use of ash timber to construct a community orchard storage facility needed for meeting space and storage. The city had hoped to use ash for the facility in some way because they had an abundance of timber available due to the emerald ash borer infestation that left thousands of dead trees in its wake. The solution was a multi-use, storage facility made from reclaimed ash timber for the cladding and cross-laminated timber for the main structure.

National Forest Service and South Sioux City administrators were very involved, providing consultation, ideas and design feedback throughout the project. The collaboration led to the selection of Randy Voss Construction to serve as the project’s general contractor for building the 256-square-foot facility.

The second design-build originated from a studio collaboration with Jon Garbisch, associate director of the Cedar Point Biological Station. The field research facility was in need of another student residence cabin to help accommodate their growing summer program, and Garbisch and Griffiths thought it would be an ideal studio design project. After much planning and consultation with Garbisch, Griffiths and the design research studio students created some concepts for the cabin. However, the project had no real prospects for being built until they found University of Nebraska Medical Center and University of Nebraska-Lincoln alumnus Mark Daniel Baxa, who agreed to sponsor the build. Shortly thereafter, Nebraska facilities signed RBP Construction as the project’s general contractor, and the dream of the 420-square-foot building quickly took off.

“It was extremely important for the team to have Mark play a part in the site’s planning and design,” Griffiths said. “We wanted him to see the concepts and part of the construction before he passed on. So the clock was ticking, and it gave our project a sense of real urgency. As I understand it, Mark attended the Cedar Point Biological Station, and his work there enabled him to get accepted into medical school, and it changed his life. Mark held many fond memories of the Cedar Point Biological Station, and that’s why this donation was so important to him.”

Project sponsors include Baxa, Bauman Family Tree Farm, D.R. Johnson Wood Innovations, Structurlam, Smartlam and the University of Nebraska Foundation's Edwin Cramer Memorial Fund and Dana Family Fund.

Project collaborators include Smith, Maffit, Garbisch, Heather Nobert, forest products marketing coordinator, and Lance Hedquist, South Sioux City administrator.

Students involved in Griffiths’ design-build projects are Shurrab, Wassung, David Alcala, Abdullah Alghamdi, Rousol Aribi, Kevin Baitey, Dayna Bartels, Jose Cano, Hannah Christy, Sean Coffey, Joseph Croghan, Justin DeFields, Jacob Doyle, Danielle Durham, Alexander Eastman, Eric Engler, Mackenzie Gibbens, Virginia Gormley, Andrew Hicks, Phung Hong, Scott Kenny, Mallory Lane, Devin McLean, Julio Munoz, Paige Nelsen, Allen Phengmarath, Ryan Plager, Rachel Plamann, Kristen Schulte, Darian Scott, Adrian Silva, Salem Topalovic, Jacob Trail, Alfredo Vera, Bingcheng Wang, Evan Wermers, Ruslan White, Ezra Young and Mitchell Znamenacek.

Design-builds are nothing new to the College of Architecture. Multiple professors and studios have been led design-builds, including Jeffrey L. Day, professor of architecture, and his FACT design research studios. Since 2001, Day and his students have worked with 15 external partners to develop design-build projects.

The college regularly participates in hands-on, design-builds and service learning projects. These projects give students invaluable learning opportunities to apply what they hear in the classroom to practical applications where they are able to work with real-world customers. In addition to the aforementioned design-builds, the college has several projects in progress this semester, including one in Rushville, Nebraska, where students are creating concepts to turn an old main street grocery store into an art gallery/cultural center.